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SEO Fact, SEO Fiction

Given the negative responses across the blogosphere to David Pasternack's piece in the DM News one is reminded of the Ben Franklin quote: "The sting of a reproach is in the truth of it." Indeed if there were not more than a kernel of truth in what Pasternack says, SEO mavens would not have reacted so violently. The crux of the debate is not whether designing sites to be search spider friendly is worthwhile, rather the question Pasternack raises relates to the value of ongoing SEO maintenance work. He argues that SEO projects can be valuable, but ongoing maintenance isn't worth the cost. His critics point out that:
  • The white-hat SEO firms really are doing work on behalf of their clients; they're not simply "setting and forgetting". Creating ethical viral link networks takes time and helps rankings; and
  • The SEO landscape changes all the time as algorithms advance; a neglected program will see listings drop in the rankings.
Both true, but also not quite on point. The cost benefit analysis helpful to retailers isn't costs versus rankings, it's costs versus sales, and SEO firms spend precious little time talking about incremental sales generated by these efforts. Herein lies the rub: there is undeniably huge value in getting ranked on page 1 of the SERPs for competitive search phrases; however, in competitive retail categories there are also no SEO firms that can put a retailer in those spots and keep them there for the long haul. Indeed, none of the top-notch firms will make promises about positions for specific terms because they know that the competition is too intense from too many different players on a landscape that shifts constantly. Instead they talk about overall "visibility" and other aggregate "rank indexes". However, retailers need to "do some figurin'" as we say in Virginia, as to whether moving from page 400 to page 3 on an important search phrase has any impact at all on their sales. Based on what we've seen on the paid links, there's not much traffic to be had beyond page 1, and while such a move may do great things for your "visibility index," it's not clear that it does much for your top line. David set off a storm of righteous indignation from those who work hard in the SEO space, but part of the reason for his rant and mine is the great preponderance of hokum out there that has been spewed by the not so hard-working, not-so ethical members of the SEO community. For almost any retailer, the lion's share of sales attributable to natural search comes from people searching for them by name. A good PPC program will drive twice the incremental search sales as almost any firm's natural search results, and while fixing specific organic search problems can materially lift the bar on organic results, ongoing link gathering, and directory insertion activities generally don't move the bar in a manner that your accounting department will notice. I'm not saying it can't happen, just that it often doesn't. Retailers should watch the sales attributable to the costs of ongoing SEO maintenance and judge for themselves. -- George
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